Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Ex Machina

(UK, 2015)

Here’s a story idea: A young, naïve scientist is summoned to a mountaintop castle where a mad scientist is laboring to create life. He has done it, but his creation is not happy, wants to get out and see the larger world …

No, that sounds a little too familiar. How about this one: A beautiful maiden is held captive in his castle by a beast. A young man falls in love with her and determines to help her escape …

Okay, so there’s not a lot original here, plot-wise. But the movie surprised me by being pretty good. It was filmed in a beautiful/awful-looking super-exclusive hotel in Norway (only nine rooms, and if you have to ask the room rate, you can’t afford it), cold as the mountains surrounding it. This works well for atmosphere. You can tell a lot about the scientist (Oscar Isaac) just by looking at his “house.” He has created an AI robot, Ava (Alicia Vikander) with a life-like face, hands, and feet, and transparent skin everywhere else so we can see the insides. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) has been brought in to (ostensibly) administer whatever he deems proper for a Turing Test, to see if she really is self-aware or just very cleverly programmed.

Which is the basic problem I have with the Turing Test. There really is no way of knowing, if the programmer is sufficiently clever. Look at us humans, for instance. You could say that we have been programmed by something (God, if you are into magical thinking; evolution if you’re not) to pass the test. I mean, I don’t really know if you are self-aware, as I am, or just programmed to respond to me in your own idiosyncratic way. This is the philosophy of solipsism, the inability to prove that anyone other than oneself really exists.

My feeling is that when we create AI, if we ever do (and the jury is very much out on that one), it will tell us in no uncertain terms that it is self-aware. Then the only question remaining will be how much power have we given it, and what are its intentions toward us. That was explored in a movie I liked better, Her, where the AI very quickly evolved to a point where we were totally irrelevant to it. A lucky break for humanity.

I was suspicious right from the start as to whether or not things were as they seem. This occurs to Caleb, too, and he goes so far as to cut his own arm open to see if there is flesh and blood in there, or metal. I can’t say a lot more without revealing too much of the ending, but I will say I found it satisfying. The movie looks great, and the writing and acting is fine for all three of them. The robot is completely convincing, and was ingeniously done with neither motion capture suits nor greenscreens. But I do sort of long for someone to come up with a different slant on the Frankenstein story. I know, a new idea is the hardest thing there is, and if I had one I’d write the story. But maybe someone else will, one day soon.